France

Here is some general, and opinionated, information about travelling in France.

Guidebooks

  • For traveling in France, the Michelin Green Guide is the most comprehensive, including everything from major cities to small towns. In addition to the general France guide, there are guides to individual regions (many, but not all, available in English). Unless you want to focus on one region, the general guide is probably sufficient. Unfortunately, none of the Michelin guides are available in electronic form
  • For finding hotels, the Michelin Red Guide is very comprehensive, and includes hotels at a number of price ranges (from moderate to very expensive).   It is particularly good for finding reliable value in smaller towns.
  • The Lonely Planet and Rick Steves guides cover hotels and restaurants in lower price ranges, but are much less comprehensive, and offer few choices in smaller, less touristed-towns.
  • Frommers and Fodors guides focus mostly on the high-profile destinations, and their hotels and restaurants are mostly high-end choices.   Frommers guides are often available as e-books.
  • TripAdvisor is good for finding hotels in larger cities and towns (like Nice) but it doesn’t have as many choices for smaller towns.  Nevertheless, it probably offers your best choice for finding small B&B’s in the countryside.  I don’t find TA very reliable for restaurants.

Money and Credit Cards

  • Visa/Mastercard are accepted at most commercial establishments; American Express cards somewhat less so. Some smaller establishments are cash only.
  • ATMs are ubiquitous and offer the best exchange rates. Note that some credit card companies charge an extra 2-3% fee for international exchange; Capital One and severa; other companies do not.
  • Automated payment machines will generally NOT accept American credit cards. They are designed to work with a card that uses a “smart chip” which most American cards don’t have. In our experience, even newer American cards that claim to have a chip won’t work in many – that’s because they are “chip and signature” cards and most European machines are looking for “chip and PIN cards.”  This shouldn’t be a major problem, but if you’re coming back from dinner by Metro, make sure you already have a ticket – most Paris Metro stations are attended, but some are machine-only early in the morning and later in the evening.
  • I have been told that “chip and signature” cards work at the Paris “Vel Lib” bike share stations, and we were able to get ours to work at the Louvre ticket machines.
  • It’s a good idea to let your credit card company know you’re going to be travelling, so your card won’t get refused by overly assiduous fraud detection algorithms.
  • The inability to use cards in automated machines is a problem. Some of these machines also accept cash, some do not. This means you will generally not be able to use the automatic machines in train stations, bike rental stations or automated gas stations. (On Sunday, automated gas stations may be the only ones open, so plan accordingly.) We have often used credit cards for highway tolls, but have also encountered situations where they did not work – which can be highly embarrassing if you need to back out of a lane.

Driving

  • Driving in France is generally pretty easy. The autoroutes (superhighway) have a high speed limit (130km/hour, or about 80 mph), so you can really make time, but the tolls are high.
  • The standard speed limit on local roads is 90 km/hr. This is reduced to 50 km/hr when you enter a signposted town. You can tell when you have exited the town when you see the town name signposted with a diagonal line through it.
  • Car GPS systems like TomTom are somewhat less useful in France than they are in other places, because most of the road signs list town names rather than route numbers. If you are comfortable using maps, the Michelin maps are excellent.
  • If a driver wants to pass you, he will pull up very close behind you and flash his headlights. This is not considered rude.
  • Parking is difficult, even in small towns. Rent a small car.
  • Don’t even think of parking where it says ‘Stationnement interdit’ or ‘Stationnement gênant’.
  • Many towns in France use parking machines rather than individual meters. You get a ticket from the meter, pay for how much time you want, and put the ticket on your dashboard. You can generally recognize pay parking spots by the blue markings. Sometimes there a sign that says “Payant.” You may have to hunt around for the pay machine. Costs are generally reasonable, and often the lunch time (12-2) will be free. They do cite people who don’t pay, or whose time is expired. If you’ve rented a car, they will send the citation to the rental agency, which will forward it on to you.
  • Parking garages are relatively rare in France, but they do exist (there’s an impressive 9-level one in St. Paul de Vence, mostly underground). Most of the garages require that you take your ticket with you and pay before you return to your car.
  • Gas costs at least twice as much as it does in the US.  Posted prices are by the liter.
  • Almost all French rental cars have manual transmissions. If you want an automatic transmission, you will pay through the nose.
  • If you are renting a car, try to rent one which runs on diesel. The French use “clean diesel” (also called “gazole”) which is widely available and somewhat cheaper (by subsidy) than regular gas. European diesel cars get much better mileage than those that take gas. In any event, make sure you verify with your rental agency what kind of gas the car takes. If you fill up with the wrong gas, you will get about 10 feet.

Trains

  • French trains (SNCF) are modern, well-designed and fast, particularly the TGV (very fast train) which runs between Paris and Avignon and certain other routes. Second class is fine for short trips. Don’t take a lot of luggage, though – Europeans don’t, and the baggage racks are designed accordingly.
  • For longer routes, and particularly the TGV, I recommend that you buy tickets in advance. Unfortunately, a US-based business called RailEurope seems to have acquired an exclusive franchise on purchasing SNCF tickets from the US.  RailEurope’s prices aren’t terrible, but they only offer paper tickets, and they don’t serve all smaller towns and cities.

Communications

  • GSM Smartphones will generally work in France, but calls and Internet searching are expensive. If you have an AT&T contract, you can buy a short-term supplemental international data plan for a reasonable fee (e.g., $30/mo for 120 MB). Otherwise, be sure to turn off data roaming, otherwise you will get a nasty surprise on your cellphone bill.
  • Wi-fi (sometimes free, sometimes there is a fee) is becoming more available, but quality varies.

Packing

  • Don’t take too much luggage. Europeans don’t, and car trunks, train luggage racks, and hotel room luggage space are designed accordingly.   Many smaller hotels don’t have elevators. And it’s not much fun to drag overstuffed “rolling bags” on cobblestone streets.
  • Don’t bring an electric hair dryer. These days, even mid-priced hotels and small B&Bs have them.
  • If you use an electric shaver, make sure it’s dual-voltage.
  • Be sure to take plug adaptors for EU two-pronged sockets.
  • France is nowadays a pretty casual country, and especially outside of the cities you won’t need business suits or other formal attire. A jacket and collared-shirt for men (tie optional) and nice looking skirts or pants (non-jeans) for women will generally get you in anywhere, except men might need a tie in a Michelin 3-star restaurant.
  • French adults don’t wear shorts outside of beach resorts. You shouldn’t either. Sandals (but not beach thongs) are OK anywhere.
  • Provence has a Mediterranean climate, which means it rarely rains in summer. Everywhere else in France, it rains throughout the year. The weather is often warmer in September and October than it is in May.
  • For washing clothes, self-service laundromats are fairly common. Some are attended and will take your laundry and return it back to you in the evening. Some hotels also provide laundry service, but it may be more expensive. Ask at your hotel.

Health Issues

  • French pharmacists stock a full range of products. Unfortunately, most have different names than their American counterparts. If you have prescription drugs or over-the-counter-products that you use a lot, take your own.
  • French pharmacists are trained to give medical advice for minor ailments, and most speak some English. So if you have a minor ailment or insect bite, going to a pharmacy is a good first step.
  • I don’t know about the availability of high SPF sunscreen in France.

Food and Drink

  • French eat a small breakfast — usually just rolls or croissants with café au lait.
  • Many restaurants offer a prix fixe (multi-course) meal which generally offers good value, but you can wind up eating more food than you want. I’ve noticed that many French people only order a single course. Dinner starts at about 8:00 (or later), and is the main meal of the day, except on Sunday, when many people eat a bigger lunch.
  • The French tend to cook their meat rare by American standards. “Saignant” (bloody) is very rare; don’t order it unless you like your food nearly raw. I usually order “a point” (medium), which is closer to “medium rare” by American standards. You can order your meat “bien cuit” (well done), but the French don’t really understand well-done meat and it will usually arrive burned.
  • Don’t try to order food with dressing or sauces “on the side.” The French spend quite a bit of time making sure foods are appropriately sauced or dressed, and they don’t like to disturb those preparations. The dressings and sauces are generally much lighter than the American “French restaurant” equivalents. Try them, you’ll like them.
  • Most restaurants in small towns in France are closed between lunch and dinner. Many restaurants serve lunch from 12 – 2. If you arrive at 10 minutes before 2, you can order a full meal and stay as long as you want. If you come at 2:05, you will be turned away. If you miss lunch, it can be hard to find something else to eat in small towns until restaurants re-open for dinner at about 7 (although you can often get a small snack in bakeries and pastry shops).
  • The quality of restaurants in France is very high.   The exceptions, unfortunately, are in places most popular with tourists, where there are many mediocre restaurants serving the tourist trade.   Try to avoid restaurants with menus in 4 languages. Restaurants that are full at non-French eating hours (e.g., 6:00) are likely catering primarily to tourists.
  • Menus and prices are generally posted in restaurant window. Check out the desserts on offer – if it looks like a lot of care went into the desserts, they probably paid a lot of attention to the rest of the food too.
  • Service (15%) is included in the price. You can leave a little extra (from a couple of euros up to 5% more) if you were happy, but it is not required,
  • At the end of the meal, you can linger as long as you like. When you are ready to leave, you ask for a check (“l’addition, s’il vous plait”).
  • Most restaurants are closed one or two nights a week, often on Sunday and Monday evenings (although they will sometimes be open for Sunday lunch).
  • American sodas are available, but tend to be expensive. Try the French brands, like Orangina.
  • Tap water is safe to drink, but most French drink mineral water (either bubbly or non-) with their meals because it tastes better.
  • Most French people drink coffee rather than tea, but both black tea and herbal tea (tisanes) are generally available if you ask. Coffee is usually taken at the end of the meal, after dessert. “Un café” or “un express” will be a strong and short expresso (although not as strong or as short as in Italy). “Un café crème” will be a short coffee with maybe half a cup of rich milk or cream. “Un café americano” is what it sounds like.

Dress

  • France is nowadays a pretty casual country, and especially outside of the cities you won’t need business suits or other formal attire. A jacket and collared-shirt for men (tie optional) and nice looking skirts or pants (non-jeans) for women will generally get you in anywhere, except men might need a tie in a Michelin 3-star restaurant.
  • Having said that, don’t show up for dinner at a nice restaurant in shorts.

Local Customs

  • Although most French are nominally Catholic, they are not really that observant (except in Brittany). There are no “clothing monitors” standing outside the doors as there are in Italy. Having said that, don’t enter a church wearing shorts and flip-flops. In some small towns the churches may even be closed.
  • When entering a French shop, it’s customary to say “Bonjour” before ordering. Americans who just blurt out their order are considered rude by the French, and may sometimes be treated rudely as a result.
  • If you want to buy fruits or vegetables from a store or street vendor, ask the proprietor for what you want. Do not pick the fruits yourself – this is considered rude in France.
  • There is an order to lines in France, although it may not be apparent to an outsider. If you are looking around not paying attention, it is considered perfectly OK for someone to cut in front of you. So stay alert.

A Note on Crime

  • Crime is not really a problem in Paris, but pickpockets do hang out in places where tourists congregate – in front of Notre Dame, the Musee d’Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, railroad stations and on the metro. Pickpockets are unfortunately common in some places outside Paris, such as Toulouse and along the Riviera.  Women should carry their shoulderbags in front; some travel stores sell bags which rest flat against the body and can be worn under a jacket or sweater. In bars or restaurants, don’t loop shoulder bags on the chair. Men should consider putting cash and credit cards in different pockets. Violent crime directed at tourists is very rare.
  • Be aware that some French pickpockets drive motorcycles, follow rental cars to tourist-area parking lots, then rob you while you’re still getting organized and not paying attention to your surroundings.
  • Theft from hotel rooms is not really a problem. That being said, your hotel provides a room safe, use it. Otherwise, bury your valuables in your luggage.
  • Do not carry your passport around with you every day. You no longer need it to change money, and if it does get stolen replacing it is a real pain. On the other hand, you should carry a driver’s license or other photo ID with you – it’s required by French law, and occasionally someone will ask for it (e.g., as a deposit for museum audioguides).
  • If you’re the type that has a lot of credit cards, go through your wallet and leave most of your cards at home. You won’t need more than two or three cards, plus an ATM card.
  • Keep a photocopy of your passport and credit cards in your luggage, in a separate place from your actual documents. Also write down the phone numbers for reporting lost or stolen cards.
  • Be aware that 800 numbers don’t work in Europe – make sure you write down the “international” number. You can also store a PDF of these copies in your cell phone.
  • Do not leave your luggage (or anything else) visible in the back seat of your car.
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